Gregor Paul

Gregor Paul is the Herald on Sunday's rugby writer

All Blacks: Return of the passing No 9

Aaron Smith of the All Blacks breaks through the tackle of Brian O'Driscoll of Ireland during the International Test Match between the New Zealand All Blacks and Ireland. Photo / Getty Images.
Aaron Smith of the All Blacks breaks through the tackle of Brian O'Driscoll of Ireland during the International Test Match between the New Zealand All Blacks and Ireland. Photo / Getty Images.

The more Aaron Smith plays, the more the focus falls on the past rather than the future.

Seeing him clear the ball so quickly and understanding the potential of the All Blacks by having a halfback with such a snappy and sharp delivery, it's impossible not to wonder why it has taken 17 years for such a player to come along.

Smith, as stated by All Black coach Steve Hansen, has evoked comparisons with Graeme Bachop - the halfback who played so splendidly at the 1995 World Cup.

Not since then have the All Blacks had a halfback who - as hard as this is to believe - has been in possession of a great pass. Why the passing halfback fell out of fashion is a pertinent question now that Smith has reminded everyone about the possibilities he brings.

It may not have been a conscious or deliberate decision to shift the thinking on halfbacks - it was just one of those things that happened over time without anyone realising how much the game here missed having a No 9 with snappy wrists.

New Zealand's leading rugby brains began to view things differently at the start of the professional age.

The combative Justin Marshall burst on to the scene and his skills were right for the team of that period.

Marshall was unusually big for a halfback - he was rugged, hostile on defence and equipped to operate as a fourth loose forward. While there was a fervour of negative commentary about his passing, most of it was exaggerated: it wasn't the strongest part of his game but nor was it as bad as it was often portrayed.

Marshall's ability to read the game, to run into space or make his presence felt on defence was enough to offset any concerns about the speed and accuracy of his delivery.

By the beginning of the millennium, it was no longer important for New Zealand halfbacks to be out and out passers. The Marshall blueprint was the one that held sway - ideas grew that it would be dangerous to play without an overtly physical No 9 who could man the fringes of the ruck.

The selection template shifted - the halfbacks of choice were all much of a muchness - clones of Marshall. There was Byron Kelleher, a ball of muscle who could bounce and bust his way to open space.

Jimmy Cowan emerged in 2004 and appeared frighteningly close to being a Marshall clone. Raised in Mataura and with the similar shock of blond hair, Cowan had the same muscular approach. And just like Marshall, he too was happiest picking the ball up from the deck, shuffling a few steps and then winding up for the pass.

By then, the idea of anything else was anathema to many: memories of Bachop were all but forgotten and it seemed that even the presence of George Gregan and then Will Genia across the Tasman couldn't instigate a shift in New Zealand thinking. It wouldn't matter how many times Gregan or Genia hurt the All Blacks, or how easy it was to sit back and admire their smooth and speedy service, there was always this sense that passing halfbacks were what Australia did, not New Zealand. That sort of player wasn't for them.

Piri Weepu enabled this thinking to continue - he was a different player to Cowan and Marshall. His skill set was wider and his vision broader but essentially, despite the fact he could fling the ball for miles with some accuracy, he wasn't really a passing halfback either. He was a variation on the muscular theme - his point of difference nowhere near as significant as was often claimed.

How many New Zealanders wondered how good the All Blacks would have been had Genia been born on this side of the Tasman? An opportunity of sorts now exists to see that scenario play out. Smith is not in Genia's class yet but he brings similar qualities and New Zealanders should realise this has happened by chance.

Smith has been manufactured outside the remit of the development structure and it is a miracle of sorts that he has been able to navigate his way to the All Blacks.

Now that he's made it, everyone can see what he brings but New Zealand rugby can't claim credit for building him. That belongs to Smith's dad, Wayne, and to former Springbok halfback Joggie Viljoen, who mentored the 23-year-old when he was at Feilding High School.

As Smith told NZ Rugby World: "When I was younger, dad always stressed to me that if I wanted to be a halfback, I needed to be able to pass off either hand. I suppose I had some natural ability as a passer but dad had this drill where he made me hit the sticker on the rubbish bin before I had dinner.

"I had to hit the sticker 10 times. He didn't have to ask me in the end. It was just something I did at night from the age of about 10 to 15. It sort of became a bit of a standing joke.

"I was very lucky when I was at school that [former Springbok halfback] Joggie Viljoen, who was a terrific passer, encouraged me to work on the little things. I had little drills to strengthen my wrists. I'd say I'm more of a wrist passer than a power passer."

Longer term, there will be some interest to see whether more passing halfbacks emerge through the system: whether there is a shift back to producing smaller, snappier No 9s whose main asset is the speed of their delivery.

The All Black coaches have spoken in excited tones about Smith. They have relished the emergence of the sort of player they haven't seen for almost 20 years. The All Black players, too, have been startled by the possibilities Smith presents.

"I realise he's got a great pass and I can use that to my advantage, knowing that I've got a bit more time and space outside me," says Daniel Carter.

"It's just continuing to learn at training about each other's little traits and as long as we're communicating well, then we can continue to improve and build that combination."

Maybe it doesn't really matter why the passing halfback was dumped off the radar. Smith can change all that and lock into minds that this is the right sort of player for the position.

- Herald on Sunday

Stats provided by

© Copyright 2014, APN New Zealand Limited

Assembled by: (static) on red akl_n3 at 23 Sep 2014 15:29:00 Processing Time: 438ms